New York State Bar Association Calls for Eliminating Non-Lawyer Judges, Creating District Courts and Revolutionizing Sentencing

By Jennifer Andrus

June 10, 2023

New York State Bar Association Calls for Eliminating Non-Lawyer Judges, Creating District Courts and Revolutionizing Sentencing


By Jennifer Andrus

The New York State Bar Association is recommending that the state’s town and village courts be consolidated into district courts and that non-lawyers no longer be allowed to serve as judges.

“It is necessary for our legal system to be constantly re-evaluated,” said Richard Lewis, president of the New York State Bar Association. “We need to continue to adapt to our changing society and improve our system so that all stakeholders, plaintiffs’ attorneys, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and of course, the parties can achieve justice.”

The association is urging the state Legislature to set new qualifications of a law degree and five years of practice in the state for town and village justices. These requirements are the same needed to serve as a city court judge in New York. If adopted, non-lawyer justices would be phased out as their four-year terms expire.

In following the New York State Constitution, a district court would need to be established through a request from the county government to the state Legislature. The county leaders would determine a central location for the court with longer hours and a full-time staff.

“The justice system needs to be reformed and consolidated. All judges must have a legal education and at least five years of experience practicing law before taking the bench,” said Sherry Levin Wallach, who is the association’s immediate past president and was the one who launched the Task Force on the Modernization of Criminal Practice. “People’s freedom, lives and livelihoods are at stake.”

The task force report, which was adopted Saturday by the association’s governing body, the House of Delegates, also urges the New York State Legislature to reform sentencing laws so that some criminal sentences can be changed after an inmate serves ten years.

Sentences involving sex crimes, first degree murder, aggravated murder, kidnapping and terrorism would not be eligible. Those serving life without parole would not qualify for sentence modifications.

“Sentencing reform will give those in prison the chance to turn their lives around and reduce the effect of mass incarceration,” said Catherine Christian and Andrew Kossover, co-chairs of the task force.

Other sentencing recommendations include:

  • Eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing with consent from the prosecution and the court
  • Allowing defense attorneys to accompany clients at pre-sentence interviews with the probation department
  • Urging Gov. Kathy Hochul to establish a commission to study whether New York should eliminate indeterminate sentences

The report also suggests ways to improve the state court system, particularly when it comes to technology.

The state should:

  • Provide funding for law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to purchase and maintain tech platforms to store digital files and help them comply with the new discovery laws
  • Create an electronic filing system for courts similar to PACER, which the federal courts now use
  • Establish a New York State Commission on Discovery led by Chief Judge Rowan Wilson
  • Support in-person court appearances for arraignments, grand jury proceedings and preliminary hearings


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